New York's New Federal Theatre, the Off-Broadway company which has long fostered the work of African-American and women playwrights and actors, will celebrate its 30th anniversary on March 25, 2001, with a Gala Awards Ceremony. The event, hosted by Debbie Allen and Avery Brooks, will take place at The Majestic Theatre in Midtown Manhattan, followed by a dinner at Sardi's.
The purpose of the occasion is three-fold. First and foremost, the evening recognizes NFT's three decades of theatre work. Secondly, the proceeds from the gala will become the foundation of a projected $1,000,000 endowment for the company. Finally, NFT will, that night, honor eight figures from the theatre and philanthropic worlds. The honorees are: Michael Bivens, director of education at the Coca-Cola Foundation; producer Wynn Handman of the American Place Theater; director Shauneille Perry; director Lloyd Richards; producer Philip Rose, and president Gerald Schoenfeld, both of the Shubert Organization; photographer Bert Andrews (posthumously) and designer Judy Dearing (posthumously).
Tickets are $150-$200 for the ceremony, $500-$1,000 for the show and dinner. Sponsorship levels range $5,000-$50,000.
The New Federal Theatre was founded by Woodie King, Jr., who remains at the helm of the company, often directing its productions. In its 30-year existence, the troupe has produced over 150 plays and musicals by such writers as J.e. Franklin [sic], Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang and Laurence Holder. Actors who have crossed its stage, and then gone on to greater fame, include Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Downey, Jr., and Lynn Whitfield.
Perhaps the first NFT play to gain attention was Franklin's Black Girl, which won a Drama Desk Award as best play of the 1971-72 season and ran for six months Off-Broadway. Another Franklin success at the theatre was Prodigal Sister (co-written by Mikki Grant), which had a run at the Theatre De Lys.
In 1972-73, Ron Milner's What the Winesellers Buy was picked up by Joseph Papp and presented at Lincoln Center—the first Black play to be so honored. It went on to tour the U.S.
Papp and his Public Theater often teamed up with NFT in the future. The company's most famous production, Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, was transferred by Papp (in a co-production with NFT) to the Public in 1975, and from there to Broadway's Booth. (The play was successfully revived in the 1994-95 season.)
Other plays to jump from NFT to the Public included David Henry Hwang's The Dance and the Railroad, which played for half a year and won three Obie Awards. Additional Obies were awarded to Bullins' The Taking of Miss Janie (1974-75), also a winner of the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play. More recently, Jim Grimsley's Mr. Universe, of the 1991-92 season, won Newday's Oppenheimer Award as best play of the year.
A further NFT highlight was Laurence Holder's When Chickens Came Home to Roost, in which Denzel Washington played Malcolm X some ten years before portraying the same man in Spike Lee's biopic of the civil rights leader.
—By Robert Simonson